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[COMMUNITY] Interview with Yuri Kochiyama (She turns 82 on May 19, 2003)

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  • madchinaman
    By Akemi Kochiyama-Ladson A. Magazine December 1, 1994 http://www.modelminority.com/article406.htm One of the earliest memories I have of my grandmother was
    Message 1 of 1 , May 23, 2003
      By Akemi Kochiyama-Ladson
      A. Magazine
      December 1, 1994

      One of the earliest memories I have of my grandmother was Hiroshima
      Day, August 6, 1978. I was six years old and she took me along to a
      demonstration she was attending. On the train ride downtown, she
      explained to me that we were going to the Riverside Research
      Institute, a "think tank" for building weapons, including nuclear
      ones. This was the place where they made the bombs they used against
      the people of Vietnam. This was a place in which they thought up new
      ways to kill people. Despite my youth, I understood the importance
      of the cause.

      I remember that the moment we got to the demonstration site, it
      seemed like she knew everyone: these people were her extended
      family. She was in her element, greeting, embracing, and introducing
      her colleagues to one another, all the while handing out leaflets to
      every person she encountered. Meanwhile, she quickly obtained a sign
      from someone and hung it around my neck. The sign was about as tall
      as I was, and twice as wide. It read "MEET HUMAN NEEDS."

      As I grew older and accompanied Yuri to other demonstrations,
      rallies, protests, and meetings, I realized that this was business
      as usual for a woman with incredible energy and a vast political

      Yuri, born Mary Yuriko Nakahara, marks 1942 as the year she came
      into political consciousness. Yuri was 20 years old, and even then
      displayed a deep concern for her community. A volunteer for the
      YWCA, the Girl Scouts, and the Homer Toberman Settlement House,
      which served the Mexican community in her home town of San Pedro,
      California, Yuri also taught first aid at the Red Cross and Sunday
      School at the local Presbyterian church.

      But on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941, three FBI
      men came to her home and took her father -- who had returned from
      the hospital only the day before -- away with them. No explanation
      was given. And it was not until six weeks later that he was brought
      home, visibly weakened, and disoriented to the point that he could
      no longer recognize his family. He died that night.

      Yuri later learned that her father had been under surveillance for
      20 years, and that the FBI had been holding him in the state
      penitentiary under suspicion of being a spy for the Japanese
      government. This came as a shock to the Nakaharas, who, as did most
      Japanese Americans of the time, saw themselves as a patriotic, law-
      abiding family. Soon after, in compliance with Executive Order 9066,
      the government removed 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from
      their homes and communities and interned them in "relocation" camps.
      The Nakaharas found themselves uprooted from their comfortable home
      and sent to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

      "I had no hard feelings against the United States," Yuri says of
      this period. "I was so American, so steeped in the 'red, white, and
      blue.' But I did slowly start to look at America with different

      Like many other Japanese Americans, Yuri tried to make her life in
      the relocation camp as normal as possible. She taught Sunday School
      there and worked with children and teens, much as she had in San
      Pedro. In 1944, she left the camp to work for a USO in Mississippi
      specifically created for Japanese American soldiers, since Asians
      were not welcome in white USOs. It was there that she met and fell
      in love with a dashing young soldier named Bill Kochiyama -- a
      member of the all-Japanese American 442nd regimental combat team,
      one of the most decorated battalions in U.S. history.

      After the war ended and the camps closed, Yuri was reunited with
      Bill in New York, and they were married. In 1960, they and their six
      children moved by subway from the Amsterdam Projects midtown to the
      uptown Manhattanville Housing Projects. This was a major change for
      Yuri and the whole Kochiyama family, as they were swept up in the
      world of Harlem in the '60s -- a hotbed of political activity.
      Through their involvement with the Harlem Parents' Committee, Bill
      and Yuri learned of the Freedom Schools organized by the concerned
      community in an attempt to supplement the deficiencies of the public
      education system. The Schools taught black children to have pride in
      their heritage, and Yuri became committed to the project. "Both my
      husband and I felt we didn't know anything about black history,
      black thinking, or black culture, and in order to understand the
      black community and and its people, we thought we'd better sign up.
      So we enrolled, along with our three eldest children, Billy, Audee,
      and Aichi. The education we received was priceless."

      As Yuri's involvement grew, so did her political awareness. "I began
      going down to 125th Street and Seventh Avenue where nationalist and
      Leftist activists would hang out and speak. I started to see that
      Harlem's politics ran a wide gamut. There were also the Garveyites,
      the Yoruba, and the Nation of Islam. Everything to me was new,
      exciting, and mind-boggling," she remembers. "Several days a week I
      would take the four youngest children and ride the subway to
      Brooklyn to participate in protests. I also joined Malcolm's
      Organization of Afro-American Unity and his Liberation School, and
      later Amiri Baraka's Black Arts School. Harlem was truly
      a 'university without walls."'

      Most significant for Yuri during this period was her encounter with
      Malcolm X. His politics and philosophy would radically change her
      understanding of racism in America. "Before I met Malcolm, I had no
      understanding of the two trends in the black movement. I was
      involved only with the civil rights movement, represented by Martin
      Luther King and his vision of harmonious integration of people to
      make a greater America through nonviolence. But after listening to
      Malcolm, I strongly felt that his position of total liberation from
      the jurisdiction of the United States was the only way that black
      people in this country would be able to empower themselves, to
      determine their own destiny. His position of self-determination,
      self-reliance, self-defense, and a sovereign nation was integral to
      realizing one's own potentials, humanity, and dignity. It is
      impossible to attain justice in a racist country. Malcolm helped me
      to see, more clearly, the true essence of the United States in all
      its negative reality."

      In 1964, Yuri invited Malcolm X to her home, to meet with reporters
      from the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. Some in the
      group were actual bomb victims, and others were antiwar activists.
      More than any other political leader in the U.S., they wanted to
      meet Malcolm X. "They were curious to know why the United States
      government feared one black man, who seemingly had no wealth, power,
      or status in America," she recalls. "They wanted to know what made
      him different from other black leaders. They were also probably
      curious to know how he would react to Japanese people."

      This was a risky time for Malcolm X, because he had just split with
      the Nation of Islam and knew that he was in serious danger of
      assassination. Still, he came, and surprised all present with his
      graciousness and openness. "Black, white or Asian, he showed no
      partiality. He thanked the Japanese hibakusha [bomb victims] for
      coming to Harlem's 'World's Worst Fair,' rather than attending the
      much-publicized 1964 World's Fair at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.
      He then spoke of European colonization of Asia, and spoke admiringly
      of Mao Tse Tung for what he was able to accomplish, fighting against
      feudalism, corruption, and foreign domination. Then he spoke of
      Vietnam. I remember he said, 'The struggle of the people of Vietnam
      is the struggle of the Third World -- a struggle against imperialism
      and neocolonialism.' All were deeply impressed," Yuri says.

      It was easy for Yuri to connect the Asian movement with the black
      movement, because many of the issues they were fighting for were the
      same. "Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were fighting
      separately and together for basic needs like food, housing,
      education, health care, and jobs. They also fought side by side for
      ethnic studies, open enrollment, increased student voice, more
      ethnic faculty, more loans for minority students, and many other
      issues pertaining to education. And we cannot forget that Asians and
      blacks and others fought for China's inclusion in the United
      Nations. They marched together to support the Attica Brothers,
      rallied behind the Black Panthers, and Young Lords, and joined in
      efforts against nuclear proliferation, against the possibility of
      more Hiroshimas or Nagasakis. They also joined generally in the
      massive demonstrations of the '60s and '70s against the Vietnam War,
      and likewise dealt with similar issues within their own groups like
      communism, socialism, nationalism, united fronts, identity crises,
      and the future of the Left."

      Through her political organizing and community activity, Yuri my
      grandmother has done her best to encourage different communities to
      work with one another. It is her belief that ethnic minorities like
      blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans need to recognize the
      similar oppression they have suffered as people of color in the
      United States -- and that unity is our best hope for true and
      lasting change. And Asian Americans should be setting an
      example. "Asians must go beyond the Asian American border," she
      says, "and engage in joint ventures or programs with other
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